History Is an Ugly Business
by
The condemned mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. Image: Tammy Aramian/Washington High School Alumni Association

The San Francisco School Board recently confronted perhaps the greatest crisis in the city’s history. Forget fire, earthquake, fear of Japanese attack, and murder of the mayor by a disgruntled ex-city councilman.

Washington High School sports an extensive mural of the first president’s life. By a radical Russian-born artist, Victor Arnautoff, the depiction includes Washington as slaveholder and Indian-killer. Earlier this year, a “Reflection and Action Group,” presumably a Bay Area staple, denounced Arnautoff for glorifying “slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, [and] white supremacy.” The Russian Community Council of the United States then weighed in on his behalf.

The educrats consulted, emoted, and finally decided. They will spend $600,000 to paint over the murals — a project that will require an environmental impact statement. (The other alternative was to panel over the existing images.) The result distressed New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who called the implications “chilling.”

But this is merely the latest iteration of a growing battle over history. Although the height of the frenzy over Confederate memories is over, this struggle is likely to go on for years. In some southern states Confederate flags fly over government buildings, appear on state license plates, are embedded in state seals, or are otherwise officially displayed. Confederate images are included in seven state flags. After the horrid Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting four years ago, South Carolina lowered the secessionist republic’s symbol, which had flown over the State House. Redrawing state flags has proved to be a more challenging process, however.

Many statues commemorate individuals who served the Confederate cause. The memorials have been vandalized, covered, and moved. Others remain, desecrated by some and venerated by others. Isolated statues on private property pose the least challenge. Dramatic poses in public spaces are the most emotionally charged, such as the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Some statues have become part of the landscape, defining an area or even a city. Richmond’s Monument Avenue may be the most dramatic vista of Confederate statuary around. Taking down “Marse Robert” and his compatriots would transform the look and feel of what was once the Confederacy’s capital, a reality that cannot be wished away. Different, but even more dramatic, is Georgia’s Stone Mountain, a state park with massive carvings of Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.

Names are slightly less controversial. The South is filled with roads, schools, and other sites named after Lee, Jackson, Davis, and others. For northern Virginia, where I live, such labels are deeply embedded. Changing names might create emotional pain, but normally is not overly costly. A Texas school named after Lee just dropped the Robert E., creating a generic nickname to reduce the rebranding expense. A Tulsa, Oklahoma, school did the same but was pushed to do more, so it made a second switch to Council Oak, on the theory that no one could criticize a historic local tree. Oklahoma City substituted Adelaide for Robert E. at one school, also cutting the expense while honoring a worthy but not particularly famous local philanthropist.

The case against Lee and other Confederates is that they fought for slavery and were racists and traitors. Whatever their personal virtues — if, according to the reigning zeitgeist, any are imaginable — no sensitive, modern-minded person could want to honor them.

While Confederates have borne the brunt of the recent historical assault, they are not alone. Baltimore had a statue controversy over one of its more famous — or, these days, infamous — citizens, Roger B. Taney. His reputation was sealed with his awful opinion as Supreme Court Chief Justice in the Dred Scott case. Then there is President Andrew Jackson, scheduled to be displaced from the $20 bill. He was a slaveholder and oppressor of Indians. On top of that, he was a nasty dude known to hold a grudge.

Moreover, as the San Francisco mural case demonstrates, America’s Founders are not immune from the historical assault. Charlottesville announced that it would no longer celebrate slaveowner Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. Instead, the city is changing the holiday to March 3 and renaming it Liberation and Freedom Day to celebrate the day northern forces arrived in 1865 as the Civil War neared its end. Of course, that is a notably modern interpretation of the event, not felt by the majority of residents at the time.

The early American leaders were a bunch of white men, most of them enmeshed in their slave-holding society as beneficiaries or enablers if not owners themselves. The colonists’ treatment of Native Americans often looked genocidal. Women had only a minimal public role — they could not vote, of course — and limited employment opportunities. The Framers eloquently spoke on behalf of liberties denied to many. Why should any of them, except perhaps the relatively pure John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, be honored?

We should end the history wars.

The importance of learning the past should be obvious. The fact that the ancients and merely old typically do not conform to our standards of morality and decency does not mean that they should be discarded. If it is true that the San Francisco mural “traumatizes students,” as claimed by some, then the kids desperately need to view it. If George Washington’s career renders students sleepless, then how would they view the behavior of most of the leaders of other countries at the time? And what would they think of much of the 20th century, when the world was supposed to have entered a more advanced progressive age? While we can all appreciate the sanitized national myths that today shape people’s understanding of America, we should know the truth. Only then will we be equipped to learn appropriate lessons and do better in the future.

Events and people usually are more complex than the storybook versions most people learn. Consider the Confederacy. Secession was about slavery — for the seven deep-South states that originally left. But the four outer Southern states remained until President Abraham Lincoln called for troops to invade the South. In effect, the Confederate latecomers fought over the issue of coercion — put bluntly, the national government’s plan to kill people who wanted to leave the political union. Moreover, most Northerners saw themselves as fighting against secession, not for abolition. Indeed, had the war ended as Lincoln desired, with a quick victory or two, slavery would have survived — contained, no longer allowed in new territories, but retaining millions of people in bondage.

Personalities are also complex. Even most Unionists were not determined abolitionists who believed in human equality; support for white supremacy was very broad. There were reluctant secessionists and enthusiastic unionists whose racial views diverged little from those of more ardent Confederates. Consider Marylanders, who were divided more by the issue of slavery than racism.

The newly elected speaker of the Maryland legislature has proposed removing a plaque placed by the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission that was intended as “evidence for remembrance of the nearly 63,000 native sons who served in the Union forces and the more than 22,000 in those of the Confederacy in the War Between the States,” all of whom “tried to do their duty as they saw it.” This is very un-PC today, but in fact Maryland was a slave state, no fount of support for freeing slaves. Lincoln helped hold the state in the union through mass arrests of secessionists. John Merryman, the subject of a famous case involving Abraham Lincoln’s illegal suspension of habeas corpus, was from Maryland.

Many anti-slavery politicians, such as Pennsylvania’s Rep. David Wilmot, author of the celebrated “Wilmot Proviso” barring slavery from territories acquired after the Mexican-American War, wanted to constrain the institution’s reach in order to keep new lands free for white laborers. There were “free” states, including Lincoln’s Illinois that did not welcome free African Americans: Illinois passed highly restrictive “Black Laws” or “Black Codes.” Plenty of northern military officers viewed African Americans as an unpleasant problem. Much like the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union military’s policies were hostile to slavery to the degree that slavery enabled the South to fight.

Some critics have singled out Montgomery Blair, a prominent Maryland Unionist after whom schools have been named. He served in Lincoln’s cabinet but was unfriendly to African American leaders and opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. Even Lincoln, who detested slavery, nevertheless made clear that his emphasis was not liberation of slaves but preservation of the Union, which he would choose even if that required the institution’s survival.

This complicated reality should remind us of the danger in judging people of their times by modern standards. To be sure, a heroic few stood against an immoral zeitgeist. John Quincy Adams, when serving in the House of Representatives after being defeated for the presidency, made himself into a virtual pariah battling slavery. And William Lloyd Garrison used his newspaper The Liberator to torment almost anyone who did not join his crusade against the evil “peculiar institution.”

Nevertheless, how many whites in 1860 were able to break free of their times and see slavery for the moral horror that it was? One may feel dismay that otherwise admirable figures — Lee or Jackson, or, more controversially, Davis (he honorably served the U.S. as military officer, secretary of war, and U.S. Senator) — could not understand what we now see clearly. But should one demonize them for doing so? Especially since so many of their Northern countrymen held similar views?

And does one judge a single opinion or an entire career? Two years ago, Annapolis took down the Taney statue, which had been erected in 1887. Today he is derided as author of the infamous Dred Scott decision. That case will inevitably define his legal career. Yet he also defended civil liberties during the Civil War and had a lengthy public career, which included state office as well as U.S. attorney general and treasury secretary, and many legal observers praise his judicial tenure despite Dred Scott. Moreover, he disliked slavery and freed the slaves he had inherited before he was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Frankly harder to justify is the veneration of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson was a vicious racist elected five decades after the Civil War. (He also took America into an unnecessary, murderous war in which America had no vital interests.) Roosevelt was a war-mongering imperialist who hardly hesitated in supporting genocidal wars against “inferior” peoples. He was vice president to William McKinley, the president who launched the Spanish-American War. That war included the conquest of the Philippines, whose people did not invite the U.S. to take control. The subsequent campaign to suppress Filipino independence fighters was as brutal as that of the Spanish against Cuban insurgents and resulted in an estimated 200,000 civilian deaths. Who among these leaders deserves a monument?

Then there is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He did nothing to desegregate the U.S. military, ordered the round-up of Japanese Americans, refused to accept Jewish refugees (consider the tragic fate of Jewish passengers on the St. Louis), and turned Russian émigrés and Soviet prisoners and refugees over to Joseph Stalin at the conclusion of World War II. These are significant blots on his record.

At least American history is fairly young. Go back in European or Asian history, and whom can one properly memorialize? Virtually every monarch, politician, soldier, intellectual, cleric, and citizen held hideous views by modern standards. Ancient Greece was a slaveholding society. Most of Roman history involved murderous military operations by an imperialist empire.

Centuries later it was the European powers that established colonial empires; some were better than others, but none exhibited much concern for the lives or dignity of those who were conquered. Most wars were over plunder and prestige, for which innumerable lives were sacrificed. Who among the leaders venerated in country after country was not complicit in, if not an implementer of, slavery, misogyny, discrimination, corruption, imperialism, brutality, aggression, racism, and much more? Do any of them deserve remembrance if they fall short of today’s progressive values?

Go to Paris and visit the Hôtel des Invalides. The centerpiece of this building complex is Napoleon’s sarcophagus surrounded by memorials to his great victories, of which the French obviously are enormously proud. It is a beautiful and impressive display. Yet the dictator and self-proclaimed emperor launched multiple military campaigns to dominate Europe. Estimates of total deaths in his wars range from 3.2 to 6.5 million people, including hundreds of thousands or even millions of civilians. Imagine if Germany today similarly celebrated Kaiser Wilhelm — after all, he was also an esteemed monarch defeated only by an overwhelming international coalition — or Adolf Hitler.

It is important to apply similar standards even when inconvenient. The Confederates were traitors, it is said. True, but Lee saw his primary loyalty to state rather than nation, and he, along with so many others, believed the Constitution allowed secession. To be fair, their position was disproved not intellectually but on the battlefield. Go back to the War of 1812, and it was the New England states that talked of secession. Did mooting that possibility disqualify them from future statuehood? Before that the Republicans, most notably James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, promoted state resistance to Federalist repression through the Alien and Sedition Acts. Should we tear down statues of anyone who advocated such treasonous courses?

And then there are the American revolutionaries. Let us be clear: George Washington was an ostentatious traitor. He served in the British Army and owed allegiance to the king. But he took up arms against his sovereign. Of course, he had the good fortune to end up on the winning side both then and in history’s judgment. Had the war ended differently, he could have been hung with a British rope and excoriated by textbooks later used in Britain’s American commonwealth. Military victory doesn’t change the moral judgment that he was a traitor (and slaveowner, of course). And what of those who defended slavery while opposing secession? During an earlier crisis, President Jackson threatened war against South Carolina when it talked of nullification and secession. He was a nationalist, but he directed his fervor for union, not abolition.

Still, learning history and recognizing reality do not require celebrating all events, causes, or people. It makes sense to look back and decide that particularly egregious examples of who or what we once venerated do not warrant such, or perhaps any, respect today. In Colfax, Louisiana, there is a memorial to the 1873 slaughter of some 150 African Americans (many members of the state militia) by a white mob/militia. This was racist murder, pure and simple.

Nor is America alone in struggling with these issues. Near Pretoria, South Africa, stands the Voortrekker Monument, a grand memorial to the early (white) Boers. The history celebrated is real, had extraordinary consequences, and reflected fortitude. Yet the ultimate result was horrid for those conquered or displaced. And many of the images contained therein are, shall we say, grotesquely offensive to black Africans.

Several possible principles for American monuments suggest themselves. Images representing a state should promote unity. Confederate history should not be featured in state flags, fly over government buildings, or otherwise adorn official facilities.

Statues to once-venerated — and still much-respected — figures should be evaluated based on importance and context. As people’s views and standards evolve, it may make sense to remove or relocate some public monuments. In other cases, we should evaluate figures’ personal and public virtues and how the common understanding of the cause for which they fought has changed. The more embedded in the landscape — on battlefields or Richmond’s Monument Avenue — the better the case for leaving them, though perhaps with additional explanations. Privatization is another remedy, moving decisions outside of politics.

Schools and buildings should be freely renamed to figures who or causes that best reflect a community’s desires and values. These may change over time. There is no reason to presume that a name that fit a school founded years or decades ago is appropriate today. America’s Founders matter still — otherwise there would be no nation — but the Civil War recedes ever more in consciousness and consequence. One could say much the same of the generals and politicians of World War I and many other figures in U.S. history.

All sides should de-escalate their rhetoric and behavior. It should surprise no one that African Americans see the Confederacy differently than descendants of Southern aristocracy do. More light than heat would be useful, with mutual forbearance, understanding, and respect more common. When the cost of being right becomes socially divisive and even violent, the battle’s price is probably too high.

As for San Francisco and George Washington, America’s first president was flawed like every other man. He continues, however, to stand especially high because he exhibited the extraordinarily rare quality of willingness to step away from political power. That willingness was necessary for the American experiment to succeed. For that he deserves our continued thanks, no matter what other faults he exhibited.

 

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

 

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